RUNNING: Parkrun has something for everyone
AS THE weather blows and burst-bank rivers wash us into February, perhaps the promise of a new start that new year traditionally offers each of us is already broken.
January is a long month, long enough to break the whimsical wishes that many make in a panic on New Year’s Eve.
Finally, it’s now safe to return to the gym, knowing that the annual January migration of those who use the squat rack for bicep curls, so as not to break their stare with the mirror is over.
Eleven blissful months of running lie ahead without having to perform emergency first aid on the runner who sprinted past a minute previously, and now lies unconscious in their box fresh gear.
Many people wake up on New Year’s Day, resolute that a change is needed in their life and determined that they will make that change happen.
Just a month later, annual gym membership cards gather dust, swimming goggles lay idle in drawers and yoga mats have spent so long rolled up, that they will no longer lay flat.
For those not quite ready to call it quits for another year, there is a hidden gem which runs weekly in Swindon.
Each Saturday through the trails of Lydiard Park, a fluorescent yellow conga line, often 400 bodies long, snakes through the dog walkers and other park users who don’t see the merit of a Saturday lie-in.
At 9am an air horn breaks the muttering and a five kilometre run begins.
There’s a mixed bag of competitors who make their way away from the house over the startline, and, flanked by trees on either side, head at varying speeds west down the gravel track.
This isn’t a race, as run director Emma Sperring, 36 from Redhouse, points out: “You can do what you want with Parkrun really, whether runners want to compete with themselves or others, or just come round and have a chat and a stroll, there’s something for everyone.”
Swindon Parkrun, the local branch of an international movement, is a free, timed five-kilometre run which is held at Lydiard Park every Saturday morning.
The competitors attire indicates that this isn’t a run like any other. At the front are seasoned runners, clad in athletics club vests and event finisher shirts to prove it. Among them, there are fathers pushing their children in special pushchairs while they run, a modern two-horse chariot race.
Another runner has a strap around her waist attached to a dog, who drags her ahead like a meat-fuelled canine pace booster. Parkrun veterans wear numbered T-shirts which proudly announce that they have completed 10, 50 or 100 Parkruns respectively.
Some are middle-aged and attempting to halt the expanse of their waistline, others are youths aiming to avoid that predicament two decades hence.
One of the chariot racers, Tim Howe, 40, of Oakhurst says: “I’ve always been a runner and always enjoyed it, I was introduced to Parkrun about three years ago.”
His two-and-a-half year old son, Joshua, is the buggy’s passenger: “I’ve been running with him since he was six months,” says Tim. “It’s harder now, because he’s heavier, and he wants to get out sooner. When I started running with him he slept through.
“Now because he’s seen me running, he’s active himself and he always wants to run.
“When we go to the park, nine times out of 10, he’s running around rather than playing on the swings or slide.
“He says to me ‘look, I’m running, daddy!’. He gets out at the end of the Parkrun and has a run around.”
Once the downhill, small bridge and inevitable uphill have been negotiated, runners are directed right and then right again onto the lower part of the course by volunteer marshals.
“Parkrun is entirely run by volunteers so if there are no volunteers there is no Parkrun,” says Sperring.
“We’ve had occasions where we don’t have enough volunteers and we’ve had to say ‘we can’t run today unless more come forward.’ “There are certain volunteers we need in place, including marshals who ensure health and safety along the course.
“We need people at the finish line to hand out the numbered tokens that help with sorting times and results. We also need people at the registration point.”
Once the runners reach the lowest point of the course, it’s a short but steep uphill back towards the start. At the top of the hill, instead of mercifully crossing the finish line, a sharp U-turn awaits and the second lap begins.
In the distance from the highest point of the course, I can see the serious runners jostling for position on the track ahead. Among them are the contenders for the annual running championship, which is in its dying weeks.
“I think it’s great that there’s that element to it too,” says Sperring. “It’s very important to quicker runners. It’s very competitive and I see it every week. I can see in their faces how much they want to win.”
The championship is split between the genders and each week, the first man and woman over the line receive 100 points each. Whoever follows claims 99, third place gets 98 and so on to the 100th finisher who earns a point. Each finisher outside the first 100 gains a single point.
Towards the end of the second lap, the group I’ve managed to hold onto catches some runners at the back of the run.
Here, mothers and young daughters are steadily climbing the seemingly alpine peak for the first time, but they don’t appear disheartened to be passed.
For they, like those only metres from the finish line, will have a level of accomplishment when they cross it equal to that of Andrew Ind, today’s winner.
“There’s every ability. We all have this one thing in common,” says Howe. “Everyone’s on a level playing field.
“Everyone cheers everyone else on. You can see afterwards that everyone has their spirits high, it sets you up for the weekend. There’s a sense of achievement. Even on a day like this, where it’s really windy and I arrive thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?’ afterwards everyone can think ‘I’ve done it.’”
“Everyone is cheered along the way,” says Sperring. “Whether running in 15 minutes or 50 minutes. There’s a huge encouragement towards the back, lots of the quicker runners will run the course and then clap and support the other runners coming, which is a huge encouragement to them.”
After crossing the line, each runner is handed a numbered chip with a barcode and a number corresponding to their final position. The finisher’s chip is scanned along with the runner’s individual identity barcode, which is printed from the website on registration, and the results are posted online, usually within the day.
“It’s a measured course,” says Sperring. “It’s timed and free that’s unheard of apart from Parkrun, which you can now do all over the UK. It’s growing and growing.”
One man who had no running and hardly any exercise experience before starting Parkrun, is 67-year-old Steve Luscombe from Warminster, who now regularly travels to take part.
“Throughout most of my life, whenever I was tempted to take exercise,” he laughs, while stretching, “I sat down until the temptation wore off.
“I decided when I retired, that I ought to do something about my obesity. So I started going to the gym, but didn’t have any direction.
“Then I asked myself ‘what is the last thing that I ever expected myself to do?’ and the answer was ‘to run’. So I started running very short distances and worked my way up until I could run half a mile, and then started to do competitive running at the back of Parkrun.
“Now, I do between 25 and 30 running events per year of which about 20 are Parkruns.
“They’re so well-organised and great events that it’s very difficult for other running events to compare with them.”
In the three years he’s been running, Luscombe has taken more than 10 minutes off his personal best and is competitive in the over 65’s age group championship.
“I like the course in Swindon,” he says. “The people are very, very friendly and it’s such a big field that there’s always somebody to compete against. There’s also a good handful of us running in the over 65s’ class. The setting’s lovely and the facilities are good.”
Sperring says the reasons for Swindon Parkrun’s success are clear: “Basically, people are coming because they can monitor their progress and their times, but it’s a community event, it’s free to enter and it accommodates anyone of any ability and any age.
“Children can come, older people can come, anyone can come. People enjoy having a chat at the end and motivating each other.
“For serious runners, it’s a measured course, it’s timed and to get that for free, was unheard of apart until Parkrun formed.
“For beginners, the course can be walked. It’s a two-lap course, so we encourage beginners to come along and just walk one lap and though you won’t get a time for that, you can see what Parkrun is about, experience the community, meet the people and then we can encourage them to build up to the two laps, run the course and go through the finish. It’s a great place to be on a Saturday morning. It’s Lydiard Park, which is just one of the best parks in the area.”
Swindon Parkrun celebrates its fourth anniversary on March 8 and runners are invited to dress in costumes related to their favourite decade.
For more information visit www.parkrun.org.uk/Swindon.